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20th Century Fox

How Small Wonder Programmed Itself Into a Hit

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Emily Webster only remembers so much from her time on Small Wonder, but she definitely remembers Lou.

Lou was a little person in his 50s who drove a Cadillac with foot pedals and had a grey handlebar mustache that drooped over his face. When Webster, who played Harriet, and the rest of the cast rehearsed their lines, Lou would stand in the darkness behind the camera and laugh so they’d know where to pause for the studio audience: Ha, ha, ha, ha!

“It was an ominous laugh,” Webster says. “A little disconcerting for a 6-year-old.”

Lou laughed on command because he was already on set as a stand-in for the child actors. With a modest budget, Small Wonder was in no position to pay someone just to come to set and chuckle. One of the earliest half-hour shows to originate in syndication, it was an objectively banal sitcom about an engineer named Ted Lawson who fabricates a robot to resemble a 9-year-old girl. He dubs his creation VICI (Voice Input Child Identicant, a.k.a. Vicki), explaining to people she was adopted after her parents were killed in an accident.

Instead of selling his innovation for billions, Lawson squirrels her away in a cabinet; Vicki would go on to spend four seasons and 96 episodes antagonizing the Lawson family (and television critics) with her literal-mindedness, super-strength, and monotone voice.   

Children loved the show. So did senior citizens. So did science-fiction clubs, which frequently wrote in to analyze the suspect logic of artificial intelligence but were nonetheless delighted such a thing as a “sci-fi sitcom” existed. Small Wonder was a syndicated hit two years before Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, but its reputation is that of filmed tedium. Thirty years after its debut, the show is simultaneously remembered with fondness and outright scorn. 

“You,” a stranger once told Webster, “were on the worst show in the history of television.”

Small Wonder’s lack of subtlety is usually laid at the feet of Howard Leeds, a former child actor himself who had gone on to a successful television writing career. He co-created Silver Spoons and worked on Diff’rent Strokes as well as the 1960s series My Living Doll, which featured a pre-Catwoman Julie Newmar as an android trying to blend in with society.

In the early 1980s, Leeds came up with an idea about a child robot who slowly adopts human traits, which he intended to be broadly written and performed for his intended audience of children. Leeds showed it to NBC, where he had a deal; when they passed, Leeds bought it back from them and sold it to Metromedia, a company that was trying to break in to the first-run syndication market. Instead of airing expensive episodes of old hit shows, stations were looking for fresh (and cheaper) material. If nothing else, Small Wonder was something different.

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“Honestly, the whole thing sounded sketchy,” says Marla Pennington-Rowan, who played Mrs. Lawson. (A character, the writers lamented, so thinly-drawn they usually introduced her chopping carrots.) “Syndication was not well-known. I didn’t think anyone would even see it.” During one taping, Rowan was distraught that no one in the audience was laughing. She later figured out they were all Chinese tourists who didn’t speak English.

Metromedia committed to 13 episodes with a budget of $300,000 each, which Leeds believed to be the lowest of any sitcom on television. It did little to contribute to special effects for Vicki’s feats—spinning her head 360 degrees or picking up a refrigerator. Green screen shots were performed Thursdays, with the cast having to come in early. Tiffany Brissette, the 9-year-old who was cast as Vicki, once had trouble breathing after she had a green stocking pulled over her head; her mother had to tell them to stop.

When not in danger of suffocating, Brissette, a pageant girl who had been up for the title role in Punky Brewster, had a deceptively difficult job: Staring expressionlessly and speaking in a monotone do not come naturally to a child, and she’d gnaw on the inside of her cheeks to keep from smiling. 

She could also perform strange mimicry when the script called for it. “She did a good John Wayne,” Tiffany’s mother, Diane, recalls. Brissette, in fact, was better than the 400 other girls Leeds tested—who likely could not do any kind of John Wayne at all—and as a result he was paranoid something might happen to her. “Howard didn’t like the fact she rode horses or went ice-skating. He was afraid she’d get hurt.”

Brissette rehearsed and studied during the week; on weekends, she and her mother would be shuttled around and out of the country for promotional appearances. Small Wonder was sold to over 20 countries and was immensely popular in Italy, France, India and Brazil, where it was called Super Vicki. Once, Brissette sang for over 30,000 people in Bogotá, Colombia.

“She worked really hard,” Diane says, “and deserved to be paid more. That was a point of contention. The adults got more money than she did.”

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Though Small Wonder was hitting the right demographics, there was surprisingly little licensing support for the show. A Halloween costume was issued one year, but ideas for a Vicki the Robot doll never made it past the prototype stage; a cartoon was discussed, then dismissed. One possibility is that Fox, which had bought Metromedia, was not fond of Small Wonder and had no vested interest beyond honoring the two-year renewal made by Metromedia for a third and fourth season. (The show was so cheap that it was virtually impossible to lose money.)

As Brissette grew older, both she and her mother insisted she be given more to do: a change of clothing, speaking in a “human” voice, or singing—anything to further the idea Vicki was adapting to her environment. “Tiffany was extraordinarily talented, but playing the role that well was a double-edged sword,” Webster says. “She wasn’t able to show any range.”

Writers petitioned for a similar break in banality, which Leeds did not grant. One of them, Mel Sherer, had written for Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and other classic sitcoms, as well as for the subversive performances of Andy Kaufman. Small Wonder was an aberration. One script featured eight pages of conversation—economically sound but creatively stilted. It prompted one writer to ask if they were working on a sitcom or an oil painting.

“The good news was, it was the easiest schedule I’ve ever had on a sitcom,” Sherer says. “We were always done by 5:30. But it was just so obviously not good that there was no way of fixing it. The ratings confounded us. But it was the way Howard wanted it.”

A Small Wonder credit was not necessarily desirable for a writer. “You can’t remove it,” he says. “I’d have people look at my resume and say, ‘Ahh, I see you’re well-prepared for a career in show business.'”

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Owing to some combination of Fox’s apathy and Leeds wanting to move on—now 95, he never returned to television—the show ended in the spring of 1989. Brissette turned her attention to school and became a registered nurse; she posed in Vicki’s pinafore for a 2007 Details magazine shoot. The show is currently back in reruns on Antenna TV after being out of circulation since 1996. It still periodically makes lists of “worst shows ever,” though in reality, it’s not far removed from the kid-friendly sitcoms that currently populate The Disney Channel.

When it was canceled, Fox threw a wrap party for the cast and crew. “Some of us were sad and some of us were ready to move on,” Webster says. “But I did finally tell Lou I was scared of him.”

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Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
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Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

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Aibo, Sony’s Failed Robot Dog, Is Returning as a Smart Home Device
Sven Volkens, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When Sony released its robotic dog Aibo in 1999, marketing it as “Man’s Best Friend for the 21st Century,” sales were impressive. But the public fascination didn’t last forever. Even though it was low-maintenance and allergy-free, most dog-lovers still preferred the pets they had to clean up after and feed. Aibo was discontinued seven years later.

Now, Mashable reports that Aibo is making a comeback, and it’s been given a few updates to make it a better fit for the current decade. When the robot companion returns to shelves in spring of 2018, it will double as a smart home device. That’s a big step up from the early Aibos, which couldn’t do much beyond playing fetch, wagging their tails, and singing the occasional song.

Sony’s original Aibo team, which was redistributed throughout the company in 2006, has reformed to tackle the project. Instead of trying to replace your flesh-and-blood Fido at home, they’ve designed a robot that can compete with other AI home speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home. The new dog can connect to the internet, so owners will be able to command it to do things like look up the weather as well as sit and fetch. Aibo will run on an open source software, which means that third party developers will be able to program new features that Sony doesn’t include in the initial release.

While Aibo is often remembered as a turn-of-the-millennium failure, it's still beloved in some communities. In 2015 The New York Times published a short documentary profiling owners in Japan who struggle to care for their robots as parts become scarce. When the pets break down for good, some of them even hold Aibo funerals. It will soon became clear if the 2018 models inspire a cult following of their own.

[h/t Mashable]

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